When the World Games come to Birmingham for two weeks in July, the world will get a taste of what makes the Magic City so special.
For John Kemp, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Lakeshore Foundation, that includes showcasing what his organization does best. The athletic competition (which takes place on July 7-17) is a unique opportunity to show athletes, fans, and visitors how people with disabilities can be given agency and shown respect. The Lakeshore Foundation–an internationally renowned organization that serves more than 4,000 individuals annually through physical activity, sport, recreation, advocacy, policy, and research–serves as the disability access initiative consultant to the World Games, providing direction on the accessibility of venues and the athlete and fan experiences for individuals with disabilities. It will also provide demonstration areas to showcase Lakeshore’s sports and athletes.
Kemp said that Lakeshore’s involvement has paved the way for future World Games city planners to make the event highly accessible and entertaining for people with disabilities. “People with disabilities will be able to ‘know before they go’ to a sporting event,” Kemp said. “They can look up venues and know what’s accessible. Cities don’t have everything fully accessible, but we’re working on getting to a place where it’s better.”
Kemp’s inspiring role at Lakeshore. The World Games is just the most recent in a long line of meaningful ways the Lakeshore Foundation is invested in the city of Birmingham. The world-class facilities and services offered from its headquarters in Homewood provide physical activity through fitness, aquatics, recreation, and athletics; research on all aspects of life with disabilities; and physical accessibility for all individuals.
Kemp, who became CEO in November of 2021, leads by example; his inspiring story encourages those he works with- from the young athletes on the wheelchair basketball court to the adults struggling to recover from debilitating injuries. Born without arms and legs and using four prostheses, Kemp began advocating for people with disabilities when he was just a boy. “I was born with a disability and was raised to be active and involved, and I can almost pinpoint the moment when it came together for me,” he said. “I went to Easter Seals Camp for several weeks, and then the Easter Seal society received a nomination for me to be their national poster child. I was selected, and I started giving small appearances.”
Even as a child, Kemp felt confident in his voice. “If someone gives you a microphone, you talk and use it,” Kemp said. “I followed through with my role with Easter Seals, and it became a passion for me.” His work with the Easter Seals went full circle as an adult when he became General Counsel and Vice President of Development for the national organization. He has also worked in many other capacities as a disabled leader and advocate, including serving as the National Executive Director of the United Cerebral Palsy Association and co-founding the American Association of People with Disabilities. He holds a law degree from Washburn University School of Law (where he also has been awarded an honorary doctorate). He’s been the recipient of the Henry. B. Betts Award, widely regarded as America’s highest honor for disability leadership and service, and the Dole Leadership Prize from the Robert Dole Institute for Politics at the University of Kansas (an award also given to Nelson Mandela and former president Bill Clinton).
Kemp now said that he’s honored to work at Lakeshore Foundation, which he calls “an incredibly inspiring place.” “I’m so impressed with the people and the mission, and how we transform lives,” he said. “We have people here who have serious accidents or other situations that have changed their lives dramatically, and they find Lakeshore. They don’t realize what they’re capable of until they come here. Our extraordinary staff works with them and they get to experience things they never thought they could do.”
Kemp said that walking through Lakeshore and visiting with athletes inspires him in his own life, to realize that anything is truly possible. “When I see the transformations that happen in people’s lives I’m so impressed, and then I get to talk to the elite athletes that we have training here and it means everything,” he said. “And then there are the young athletes who are playing power soccer or wheelchair basketball. I love talking to them, hearing their stories.” Kemp stated that the way Lakeshore offers services is unique in the world; “nobody else combines it with research the way we do it, to help people improve their own functioning,” he said.
Faith and Family. Finding his way back to Birmingham has been another “full circle” moment in his life, since his wife Sameta (Sam) is from the city, and they met when his work brought him here. Sam worked for another disability organization, and they often found themselves in the same environments. “I came here in 1998, we fell in love, and we’ve now been married for 21 years,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Birmingham, we wouldn’t be together.” They now have five grandsons in Birmingham, and Kemp calls their journey back to Alabama “serendipitous.”
Together they raise their family with and provide an example of living a life of faith that shows respect and gives meaning to all people. According to Kemp, many people simply don’t know how to treat people with disabilities–not from unkindness, but from not understanding the issues involved. “Disability exclusion usually isn’t intentional,” he said, “you just aren’t thinking about it. It’s more of an oversight at that point.”
Many people, he said, don’t think about the issue until they’re confronted with it. Perhaps they have family members with a disability, or they have to confront it in their own lives. “It isn’t until then that they connect the dots,” he said. And for Christians? Kemp said that churches and other faith-based organizations tend to have a natural inclination to be inclusive because it’s a “natural part of love to be so,” but that there’s always room for improvement.
As an altar boy in his own childhood, Kemp said that he literally couldn’t “step up” the altar. Such hindrances for people in the church with disabilities need to be addressed. To have a full experience with God, Kemp believes that worship and other spiritual activities need to be accessible. Whether that’s sign language offered in services or a wheelchair ramp to get to worship or study space–the church needs to be at the forefront of inclusivity for people with disabilities. “We need to do whatever we can do to make people feel that love and to feel more included,” he said. “That should be a natural part of faith.” While awareness of disability issues continues to increase, Kemp said that it will always be “a slog uphill” to make things right. “People are more aware, but there are still plenty of hurtful things done toward the community,” he said. “It continues to take work.”
Birmingham’s time in the spotlight. The spotlight on Birmingham for this month’s World Games is important for this reason, Kemp said. Showing organizations like the World Games how important it is to include people with disabilities is one more step to making inclusion a reality. While every venue won’t be accessible to people with disabilities, there will be more opportunities at this World Games than at any of the athletic events in the past.
The Games also create an opportunity for the community to learn more about Lakeshore’s own elite athletes. The Foundation’s facilities serve as an official training site for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee teams and serve as host for national team training camps and international competitions. Those U.S teams have won medals at the Paralympic Games and serve as inspiration to people everywhere. At the World Games, teams and athletes from Lakeshore Foundation will provide demonstrations at different venues in the city–showing again what the Birmingham facility so uniquely offers.